False news spreads online faster, farther, and deeper than truth does — but it can be contained. Here’s how.
For the past three years Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy, and I have studied the spread of false news online. (We use the label “false news” because “fake news” has become so polarizing: Politicians now use that phrase to describe news stories that don’t support their positions.) The data we collected in a recent study spanned Twitter’s history from its inception, in 2006, to 2017. We collected 126,000 tweet cascades (chains of retweets with a common origin) that traveled through the Twittersphere during this period and verified the truth or falsehood of the content that was spreading. We then compared the dynamics of how true versus false news spreads online. On March 9 Science magazine published the results of our research as its cover story.
What we found was both surprising and disturbing. False news traveled farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in every category of information, sometimes by an order of magnitude, and false political news traveled farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than any other type.
The importance of understanding this phenomenon is difficult to overstate. And, in all likelihood, the problem will get worse before it gets better, because the technology for manipulating video and audio is improving, making distortions of reality more convincing and more difficult to detect. The good news, though, is that researchers, AI experts, and social media platforms themselves are taking the issue seriously and digging into both the nature of the problem and potential solutions.
In this article I’ll examine how we might contain the spread of falsity. A successful fight will require four interrelated approaches — educating the players, changing their incentives, improving technological tools, and (the right amount of) governmental oversight — and the answers to five key questions: